House panel acts to cut welfare by $35 billion

March 04, 1995|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A key House committee agreed to slash welfare spending by $35 billion yesterday in a sweeping Republican proposal that would end the 6-decade-old guarantee cash payments to anyone who qualifies.

As part of their proposed overhaul of the welfare system, GOP members of the Ways and Means Committee approved dropping nearly 1 million people -- including 225,000 children -- from Social Security disability rolls, producing $20 billion of the savings, which would accumulate over five years. The cuts would come from a projected $250 billion in welfare spending the next five years.

Republicans are in such a hurry to adopt the welfare changes as part of their "Contract with America" that they haven't taken the time to write the actual legislation, working instead from what they call a "conceptual document."

Before the bill can be sent to the House floor, the Ways and Means Committee staff must draft the legislation and the committee must approve it. Democrats yesterday objected to a final vote without the legislative language.

After that approval, the measure will be combined with welfare legislation coming out of other committees, including changes in the food stamp and school lunch programs that have drawn sharp Democratic criticism.

A senior committee aide, Ron Haskins, said the goal is to get the legislation to the House floor the week of March 21.

If it passes, the bill will go to the Senate, which hasn't yet begun to consider welfare. House Democrats held out the hope that the GOP proposal would be modified substantially when it reaches the Senate.

"I believe the Senate and the president will make sure this bill doesn't become law," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui, a California Democrat.

The panel's majority Republicans acted as Democrats charged that they were being "cruel to children" to finance a tax cut for the wealthy.

The plan would turn the nation's main welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), back to the states in the form of block grants -- direct cash payments with little or no federal restrictions on the use of the money.

The bill also would cap federal spending for AFDC at $15.4 billion a year for five years and leave the states free to decide how much -- if any -- of their own money to put into welfare.

The bill's far-reaching provisions include an effort to reduce teen pregnancy by denying welfare payments to mothers under 18 and their children. The measure also would limit eligibility for welfare payments to five years and would impose work requirements that Democrats attacked as not sufficiently demanding.

"The Democratic bill moves people from welfare to work," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat. "The Republican bill moves people from welfare to nowhere," he said, noting that states could get credit for meeting the bill's work objectives simply by removing recipients from the rolls.

Trying to crack down on "dead-beat dads" who avoid paying child support by moving out of state, the Republicans' proposal creates centralized state agencies to collect and distribute payments.

The measure also would establish one national registry of child support orders and a second registry of newly hired workers to which all employers would have to report.

That identifying information on new employees would be matched against data in the child support directory in an effort to catch parents who are delinquent in payments.

The measure would sharply curtail the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, ending cash payments and health coverage for 120,000 drug addicts and alcoholics; 225,000 children who got on the rolls through subjective individual assessments; and 520,000 legal aliens who now draw SSI checks. Another 492,000 aliens who receive AFDC benefits would lose them, too, as the Republicans seek to deny welfare to virtually all non-citizens.

The rolls and cost of the 21-year-old, $25 billion SSI program for the blind, aged and disabled have skyrocketed in recent years, fueled by an explosion in applications and relaxation of standards. The number of children collecting payments has tripled to 900,000 as thousands of children with marginal ailments have gotten on the rolls.

SSI pays up to $458 a month to each recipient, with few strings attached. The Republican proposal would end cash payments to most children, while providing them Medicaid coverage and services to cope with their disabilities.

But, 225,000 of them who were awarded benefits through a subjective individual analysis required by a 1990 Supreme Court decision would be kicked off the rolls. In addition, House Republicans would end the use of that analysis.

That process "is so subjective it is very difficult to have consistent decisions being made," the General Accounting Office's Jane L. Ross told a Senate panel this week. "We don't think that . . . ought to continue."

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